Monday, April 16, 2007

knockin' the suburbs

Art critic John McDonald is no fan of Howard Arkley, and wonders why anyone else is.
In previewing the Arkley exhibition running until May 6 in Sydney, Carnivale of Suburbia, McDonald questions the validity of Arkley's popularity. He suggests it is more a factor of marketing hype rather than appreciation of any genuine talent (Spectrum, Sydney Morning Herald, April 7; not available online).
McDonald takes a dim view of Arkley's legacy, from the headline--"Major hype for a minor talent"--through phrases like "technicolor screaming", "pure surface" and "no pictorial intelligence". The best he can offer is that Arkley's work has "strong graphic appeal". McDonald declares, "his paintings are failed abstractions that hide behind the facade of suburban kitsch".
A major criticism involves the use of color. McDonald describes, with distaste,

"...clashing colours so bilious and aggressively ill-matched that they seem to have been chosen by playing Roulette with a colour wheel"

McDonald compares the works with those of Michael Johnson, of whom he writes, "his colours never seem arbitrary". Maybe Johnson is saying something quite different. However, by writing that Arkley's colours seem "aggressively" put together, McDonald acknowledges that the colour schemes are deliberate, even as they appear arbitrary, since aggression implies motive. McDonald is irritated that there is "no discernable logic in the selection of colours", unable to accept there might be the logic of no logic. Arkley's colours could reflect ideas about randomness, chaos, chance. Perhaps even something about the apparently meaningless, apparently arbitrary nature of reality (until meaning is constructed or imposed). I'm guessing here, of course; I'm no art critic, and I haven't actually read anything Arkley has said of his work. Paradoxically, McDonald later criticises Arkley for being "mannered" and "calculated".
A second criticism is that Arkley doesn't obey expectations about 'good taste'. McDonald mocks Arkley's postmodernity:
"In the gospel according to Arkley, there is no such thing as good taste--all decorative impulses are equally good and valued."

It's as if McDonald would've been happier if Arkley had painted prettier houses, gentrified the works, perhaps painted Mosman. McDonald seems to cringe at Arkley's view of suburbia and the very idea that it might be "celebrated". He blasts Arkley's status as "poet of the common people, finding beauty in all the kitsch". Frankly, to me there is an element of horror in the pictures as well. I think at the very least Arkley was ambivalent about suburbia.
Of Arkley's monochrome work titled "Primitive", McDonald complains:
"There is no volume, no perspective, no light and shade, just a monotonous line that resolves itself into a stream of consciousness panorama."

Isn't this kind of hitting the nail on the head? Isn't that suburbia--that sameness, that white noise, that homogenous hum? Except the hum is a scream. I mean, doesn't the mainstream, in fact, scream as loudly and garishly as punk?
"As a celebration of the suburban aesthetic, it has a double edge."

Well, yeah.
McDonald's chief objection seems to be to Arkley's claim to the "dubious title of artist-laureate of the Austrlaian suburbs". He offers up his favored alternatives, John Brack and Charles Blackman, neither of whom are exactly Arkley's contemporary peers. (I believe Brack was painting suburban scenes in the 50s, wasn't he?).
To me, there is an element of snobbery in McDonald's critique. He writes,
"Sydney viewers can make up their own minds about Arkley. Don't feel intimidated, because it's not a demanding task."

Is it just me, or is this vaguely patronising and elitist? Because Arkley strikes a chord with ordinary people, because the work is popular and accessible, it represents dumbing down?
"Some viewers will have an instant, favourable response to the bright energy in these canvases. Others--and I include myself in their ranks--will find they slip away from one's gaze like the images on a TV screen."

I find this metaphor unconvincing. Firstly, Arkley's images do not slip away so easily at all. If I say "Arkley", you will be likely to easily conjure up his paintings in your mind's eye. And secondly, images on a TV screen are not always fleeting; many televisual images (September 11 is the most obvious modern example) linger potently, long after they have been aired.
I find this to be a telling paragraph:
"At the end of this show, I felt like those Spanish explorers who crossed the ocean and discovered a new continent. 'What was it like?' people asked. 'Aca nada!' [the explorers] replied. 'There's nothing there.'"

Curious choice of metaphor. After all, the explorers were mistaken, weren't they? To be sure, it may not have been what they expected to find. But there was plenty there.